Return to Dakto is an intimate road trip with five very different American war veterans – an entertaining, thought-provoking documentary journey peppered with vibrant Vietnamese culture, military memories and deep desires for personal closure.
Arriving in exuberant Saigon, the five veterans are fish out of water - portly, wary, unsteady. Reacquainting themselves with the cultural tapestry, vibrant, friendly Vietnam embraces the veterans wholeheartedly as they nostalgically wind their way through the Mekong Delta.
Like many veterans, each man carries a distinct perspective of combat. Always thinking of others - Colonel Newman Howard, the commander of the 299th Engineers - helps his men through their “final mission together.” Ex-Lieutenant John “Duffy” Dubendorf wants to see “if what we did here was right”. Genial Ohio Sergeant Bill Christie suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and can’t keep the war out of his mind. Open-minded Oregonian John Marcoulier - a communication specialist– hated the destruction of war, but loved the camaraderie and discipline.
Upham’s lifelong quest probes the haunting personal reasons he fought in Vietnam. Beginning with the terrible death of a playmate, his poignant story weaves in and out of this insightful documentary, offering an intimate portal into the mind of a war veteran exploring how soldiers are often drawn to war carrying painful unresolved childhood wounds – haunted by guilt, redemption - even revenge.
When the five visit the vast wartime tunnel complex at Cu Chi, these deeper scars of experience arise – mirroring images playing inside the veteran’s heads – trepidation, adolescent exuberance, unease, sadness and anger at the past - all ripple up to the surface with invasive remembrances of how the US government had abandoned the 299th at Dak To.
As they travel to Dalat, the picturesque old Hill Capital, the five men form comradely bonds, replete with good humor and a deep trust that comes from depending on each other for their lives. As the five wind their way ever closer to Dak To, it is revealed that the 299th suffered 40% casualties in a two-month-long siege.
At the heart of this cinematic journey lies healing. The five vets reach Dak To and perform a powerful emotionally-charged ceremony near their old airstrip, where their comrades suffered terrible losses against vastly superior North Vietnamese forces when the US Army refused to bring any more troops back into the valley.
Return to Dakto offers deep connections between personal and collective memory and war. The five soldiers’ expectations before entering the Army are contrasted with the blunt reality of war when the five finally reveal powerful postwar consequences to themselves and their families – the effects of which have lasted for decades.
Through these shattering insights and the powerful personal transformation of Upham’s journey, a path is laid down – one by which veterans and families might travel to transform their relationships to their past.